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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 3

I hadn’t intended to do another Dodgy Stats post so soon, but then a friend sent me this document and, well, I just couldn’t help myself.

The document is titled “Prostitution – Fact or Fiction” and it comes from the website of End Prostitution Now, which describes itself as “a campaign led by Glasgow City Council”. At the end, under the heading “Acknowledgments”, it refers to Demand Change, a joint campaign by leading British abolitionist groups Eaves and OBJECT, and to the Women’s Support Project, a Scottish feminist group addressing issues of male violence against women. Similar documents are indeed found on both those group’s websites, but while I haven’t done a detailed comparison between the three it is clear that EPN made some changes and added claims of their own. I’ll therefore confine myself to addressing the EPN document, though I may go back sometime and look at the detail of the other two.

There are a lot of typical abolitionist errors in the document,  such as generalising stats about street workers across the entire industry, repeating the myths I’ve addressed in other posts about the Swedish experience, and taking Melissa Farley’s work seriously. There’s also a totally bizarre claim about what low union membership among German sex workers means, but really I want to focus in on three “facts” that I find particularly revealing, in terms of what they demonstrate about abolitionism’s concern for evidence.

68% meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Ramsay, Retal, 1993).

Let me start off by saying that I have a bee in my bonnet about Harvard referencing. Used correctly – that is, with a proper bibliography at the end – there is no reason it can’t be a reliable method of showing the origin of an assertion. Unfortunately, it easily lends itself to being used incorrectly and therefore absolutely worthless. I mean I could write here that 85% of Irish escorts hold doctorates from Trinity College and then next week some other blogger on the other side of the world could repeat that claim and cite it as “(Lyon 2011)”, and it would look academic and impressive to readers who didn’t know any better. Alas, it is not the case that 85% of Irish escorts hold doctorates from Trinity College – at least as far as I know.

Since EPN are among those who don’t use the Harvard system correctly, I can’t tell from their document what exactly “Ramsay, Retal, 1993” refers to. Googling it produces nothing except links back to the exact same text, which is always a bad sign. After trying a few fruitless variations I finally discovered this article which is by an “R Ramsay, C Gorst-Unworth and S Turner” = Ramsay R et al 1993? A sloppy mistake, but one I wouldn’t kill them over.

What’s more serious is the article’s subject matter: “the psychological well-being of 100 survivors of torture and other forms of organised state violence”. It’s behind a pay wall, so I can’t tell if prostitution is one of the forms of organised state violence discussed therein, but if so it would be a remarkable exercise in dishonesty to generalise stats from those “survivors” across all sex workers.

In fact, I think what EPN have probably done here is simply cited the wrong document; that figure is usually linked to a Melissa Farley study which purported to show a 68% rate of PTSD criteria among sex workers. And as for the Farley study, I’ll just quote from what Paul Henry de Wet, head of Forensic Psychiatry at the hospital attached to the University of Pretoria, had to say about it in his affidavit in South Africa v Jordan: “In the absence of proper control groups for the research and in the absence of proper diagnostic methodology I find the diagnosis of PTSD as well as the allegations in respect of its alleged causes to be wholly inappropriate.”[1]

If it is just a case of citing the wrong document then, again, that isn’t a particularly grievous error. But it does show a lack of attention to detail which I think is typical of a lot of these campaigners, and demonstrates why their assertions must not be simply taken at face value.

In New Zealand, complete decriminalisation has led to the illegal sector expanding to make up 80% of the industry (Instone and Margersion, 2007)

 This doesn’t even make logical sense. If there is complete decriminalisation there can be no illegal sector, by definition.

In fact, New Zealand does not have complete decriminalisation, although it’s probably about as close as we’ll ever see in our lifetime. Managed brothels are regulated, not decriminalised; commercial sex involving non-residents or under-18s or that takes place without a condom remains illegal. So are Instone and Margersion claiming that these sectors have expanded to make up 80% of the New Zealand industry?

No. In fact, they’re not even referring to New Zealand. What they actually say is: “In other jurisdictions where prostitution has been legalized or decriminalized there has been considerable expansion of the legal industry, but the illegal industry has expanded most and regularly comprises 80% of the industry, as Mary Sullivan’s book on the effects in Australia, Making Sex Work (2007) reveals”.[2]

So Sullivan claims this happened in Australia (I’ll deal with that stat another day), Instone and Margersion get from this that it “regularly” happens when prostitution is made legal, and EPN then states as a matter of fact that it has happened in New Zealand.

Is it becoming obvious why I find abolitionists so frustrating?

Estimated numbers of people in prostitution consequently fell from around 25,000 to a current estimate of 2500.

No citation is given for either of those figures, but the estimate of 25,000 in Sweden would be quite extraordinary; I’ve certainly never seen anything like it in the piles of material I’ve read about the Swedish sex industry.

Googling “25,000 prostitution Sweden” returns a number of pages (themselves of dubious reliability) asserting 25,000 sex workers in the Netherlands; some of them compare this to an alleged 2,500 in Sweden around the time of the law’s enactment – not after it. This seems to be a case of picking up numbers from web trawls and inserting them into a propaganda sheet without even bothering to ensure they were copied correctly – much less than that they ever had any validity to begin with.

Of course, anyone can make up numbers about anything, and plenty of people do. But this is a campaign led by a government body. Just a local authority, granted, with limited law-making powers – but some of those powers can have a direct impact on sex workers’ lives and livelihoods, and it’s a matter of deep concern if they are being exercised by councillors with such little regard to important details like, you know, facts. Moreover, the imprimatur of a major city’s government can sometimes add more weight to a document than it would otherwise have. I couldn’t say for certain whether any other policy-makers have looked at this or factored its contents into their consideration of the issue, but the possibility is always there.

Any Glaswegians who stumble across this post while searching for information on the sex industry in your wonderful city, you might consider contacting your councillors and asking them what the hell they are doing attaching the council’s name to such a poorly-researched and poorly-referenced propaganda piece.



1. The link to the de Wet affidavit on the South African Constitutional Court website isn’t working. Email us at feministire(at)gmail(dot)com if you want a scanned copy.
2. Emphasis added and internal citation omitted.

Outreach to sex workers and their clients, not abolitionism, saves lives

I can’t really believe this isn’t so obvious as to go without saying, but yet another peer-reviewed study published in the Lancet this week shows that outreach to sex workers and their clients – including condom distribution, one-on-one safe sex counselling and efforts to reduce stigma – can make a dramatic contribution to HIV prevention. The study was conducted in a number of Indian states over a five-year period.

Sex work in India has a similar status to Ireland: it’s not illegal in and of itself, although many of the surrounding activities (solicitation, brothel-keeping etc) are. A campaign to criminalise clients was opposed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and by the National AIDS Control Organisation, which operates under the Ministry’s aegis, for the precise reason that this would impede the fight against HIV/AIDS. In taking this position, the Indian authorities echo the views of bodies from the World Health Organisation to UNAIDS to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, as Stephanie and I noted in this post.

The logic behind this view isn’t difficult. When commercial sex is criminalised – whether for the buyer, seller or both – it hides. The persons involved shy away from social and medical services, due to fear of arrest, of blackmail, of loss of custody of their children, of being treated like deviants. The stigmatisation created by these laws is a powerful force, often overriding even the assurance that sex workers themselves won’t be prosecuted for their activities. This is reflected in a report published earlier this year by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (only in Swedish, unfortunately), which describes on pages 62-63 an interview with a small-town sex worker who admits she does not go for regular HIV testing because of this fear of being identified as a “prostitute” and therefore stigmatised. This can happen even where commercial sex is entirely legal, of course, but there is little dispute among those who work with or study sex workers that the stigma is much greater where it is criminalised.

But that’s not the only problem. Abolitionism is, by its nature, incompatible with harm reduction, and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS often conflict with moral opposition to the behaviours that put people into high-risk categories. This is the case whether we’re talking about sex workers and their clients, injecting drug users or men who have sex with men. But while most western countries, at least, have begun to come to grips with reality in relation to the last two categories, there is still often a stubborn refusal to accept the need to do the same for the first. In Ireland, the main NGO doing outreach to sex workers, Ruhama, offers sex workers cups of tea but not condoms; in Sweden, the Federation for LGBT Rights noted in a report last year (also only in Swedish), on pages 2 and 8, that HIV prevention programmes directed at sex workers and their clients have been blocked because of the state’s zero-tolerance approach to commercial sex. Whatever your personal views of the sex trade, this is fucking crazy.

The evidence that these programmes save lives is so clear that one conclusion is inevitable: to some people, lives are less of a priority than making a “statement” about the morality of the sex trade. They wouldn’t be unique in that view, of course. It’s the same attitude that leads conservative groups to oppose young people having access to condoms, or teenage girls getting the HPV vaccine. But it may go even further than that. Describing the reluctance to adopt measures that could reduce sex workers’ risk of violence, Hilary Kinnell in Violence and Sex Work in Britain theorises at 29-30 that sex work opponents see this violence as a “necessary deterrent”, a warning to people not to enter the sex trade because they might end up dead. If they stop ending up dead, there’s less of a disincentive to doing sex work. And so there’s less of an incentive for sex work opponents to try to prevent sex workers ending up dead.

Some would be outraged by this accusation, but Kinnell didn’t make it up out of nowhere. She cites from a 1977 Observer article in which Polly Toynbee alleges that this was precisely the justification given to her by a Home Office official as to why prostitution should remain “dangerous”. Kinnell writes that “no one would admit that policy is driven by such thinking today” – but this was before Sweden published its 2010 “evaluation” of its sex trade law, which stated that the increased stigma and other negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”.  This was before Stockholm Police Superintendent Jonas Trolle told the BBC that “It should be difficult to be a prostitute in our society – so even though we don’t put prostitutes in jail, we make life difficult for them.” These comments don’t state in so many words that they want sex workers to face risks to their health and their lives – but since the increased stigma is itself a risk to their life, as indeed are some of the other ways by which life is “made difficult” for them, that really is what it amounts to.

If abolitionists are genuinely motivated by regard for the well-being of sex workers, they need to explain how this can be reconciled with opposition to programmes that demonstrably improve their health and safety. It’s not enough to simply argue that they are trying to take them out of the high-risk category. People within this category have as much right to health promotion as people in any other. That’s not just my personal view; that’s international law.

And if – like their religious colleagues – they do believe that the threat of serious illness or death is an appropriate tool of social control, then at the very least they should be honest about it and stop dressing up their arguments in the language of concern.

Dodgy Stat Diary, Day 2

The independent Senators have a motion for debate next week to criminalise the purchase of sex, and it’s a Dodgy Stat-lover’s dream. Let’s take it one (loaded) bullet point at a time:

That Seanad Éireann:
• Recognises that the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery and a form of human rights abuse.

Hard to argue with that – though it’s not really that modern, nor are only women and girls affected.

• Notes that the Irish sex industry – which is worth €250 million a year (CAB, January 2011) – is very damaging for the girls and women involved in prostitution.

I can’t trace the source of this statistic. The most recent CAB document available seems to be its 2009 annual report, which says nothing about the value of the Irish sex industry. I note, however, that €250 million seems to be a popular estimate:  Googling “Criminal Assets Bureau” “€250 million” I find that precise figure linked to the the private security industry, the Moriarty Tribunal, the IRA and even to CAB itself. Amazing, isn’t it, that such a wide diversity of matters can give rise to the exact same nine-figure estimate?

Just sayin’.

• Notes that internet audits consistently show that more than 1000 women are made available for paid sex on a daily basis all over Ireland and up to 97% of them are migrant women. (Kelleher 2009)

The cite here is to a report I have in front of me titled Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution which was published by the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Ruhama, the two organisations leading the Turn Off the Red Light campaign (aimed at criminalising sex-purchase in Ireland). It’s a confusing mishmash of the actual statistics in that report, though those statistics are questionable enough anyway. The report alleges a “minimum of 800 women advertised on the internet in indoor prostitution in Ireland at any one time” (page 109), revealed by “internet searches of websites” (page 84) – but on the only website discussed in the report, Escort Ireland, they found between 387-468 women advertising at any one time (page 85). What other websites did they use? How do they know it wasn’t the same women advertising (for that matter, how do they know the same women weren’t placing multiple ads on Escort Ireland?). There is simply no explanation given for how “387-468” becomes “800” – and there is certainly no justification for the Seanad motion’s reference to consistent internet audits.

The 1,000 figure cited in the motion does appear in the report, on page 33, although it relates to “women in indoor prostitution” (not all women in the sex industry, and not only those who advertise online). Nothing in the report explains how they arrived at this figure. Page 15 cites its sources of information on indoor prostitution as the internet audit, “interviews with specialist frontline service providers” and “interviews with 12 women in prostitution”, so perhaps the extra 200 came out of these discussions, but without proper citing of that figure it’s impossible for the reader to know.

Finally, the claim that “up to 97% of them are migrant women” also comes from the chapter on indoor prostitution. It is not, as the Seanad motion claims, the figure for the sex industry generally. (Street-based sex workers are believed by both sides of this debate to be primarily Irish, as reflected on page 13 of the report.) And where did the 97% figure come from? According to page 86, that’s the percentage of women who advertised on Escort Ireland as non-Irish. On page 23 they allow that the percentage of Irish women over all forms of indoor prostitution could be up to 13%; presumably this is also derived from those non-EI internet searches and conversations with sex workers and service providers, but I can’t find any other explanation for that figure in the report.

Incidentally, I’m not disputing that there are at least 1,000 women selling sex in Ireland at any one time. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was higher. But that’s just my own guesswork – I’m not trying to pass it off as research data. If I was going to do proper research into the numbers involved in the sex industry (all grant offers considered!), you can bet I would be a bit more careful about my evidence than the drafters of this motion were.

I also don’t take issue with the claim that most sex workers in Ireland are migrants. Turn Off the Blue Light accepts this to be the case, and they’re better placed to know than I am. But it is nonsense to cite specific figures, even within a ten-point range. The sex trade is simply far too complex and hidden to throw out numbers based on data from one internet site and conversations with a few people associated with the industry.

On a final point about this report, I note that page 86 urges caution with the fact that 41.9% of Escort Ireland advertisers are listed as “EU 15 states” (and therefore, presumably, very unlikely to have been trafficked). It notes the possibility that they may actually be from further afield but think “women from Europe have more appeal to men who buy sex”. Meanwhile, on page 23, it refers to the “growing demand for migrant women” in the industry. Nowhere does it put two and two together and consider the possibility that some of those advertising as foreign nationals on Escort Ireland may really be Irish women hoping to profit from a desire for the exotic.

• There is clear evidence of children who have been trafficked in Ireland specifically for the purpose of prostitution. (Kelleher 2009; AHTU annual report 2010)

The cites here are from police and NGO projects in which children have been specifically identified as victims of trafficking for prostitution. The criteria for identification may sometimes be questionable, but this statement is expressed in general enough terms that I don’t think there’s really any reason to dispute it. But buying sex from children is already illegal; I don’t know why it’s deemed relevant in a motion calling for criminalisation of those who buy sex from adults.

• Notes evidence from Sweden and Norway which shows that criminal sanctions for the purchase of sex are a proven a deterrent to prostitution and consequently to trafficking and also to organised crime. (Mc Leod et al. 2008) (Claude 2010).

The only thing I can find that looks like it might be “Mc Leod 2008” is this piece which is titled “Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland”. Great referencing, there. That report cites from such reliable data as a police officer asserting that Sweden has less prostitution than its neighbouring countries (something that was claimed to be the case long before the sex-purchase ban was brought in), and another report which cites data from the first two years after the law was brought in. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, however, more recent data make those claims impossible to substantiate.

“Claude 2010” is this document, and the sole statistic it cites (page 11) in support of the claims made in the motion is a decrease in the number of Swedish men who admit to buying sex, in polls taken in 1996 and 2008 – that is, before and after it was criminalised. Does anybody really believe this is a reliable way to measure it?

Interestingly, the same report also admits (page 14) that “the problems related to prostitution and human trafficking still remain significant” in Sweden, and quotes a policeman to the effect that street sex workers are regularly raped and do not report it (page 15). On the latter page another Swedish policeman states that “Sometimes the work seems hopeless, as there is a constant stream of new women ending up as prostitutes in deplorable situations…I also believe that, sooner or later, what we do for the girls on the street will produce results.” (emphasis added). Isn’t that a tacit admission that what they’re doing isn’t producing results now? I’m actually rather stunned that this report is cited as if it supports the motion.

Finally, contrary to the motion’s implication, neither the MacLeod nor the Clarke report say anything about how the law has worked – or not – in Norway.

• Further notes that International Conventions repeatedly call for efficient measures to deter demand for prostitution, which is recognised as an efficient approach to reduce sex trafficking (Article 6, Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings 2005; Article 9(5), UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children 2000)

The actual terminology used in these treaties is that states shall “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”. On the face of it, that may indeed look like it’s requiring states to deter demand for prostitution.

But this is why it’s important to read laws in their full context. Neither the CoE convention nor the Palermo Protocol is about sex trafficking specifically – both refer to the full range of human trafficking, including labour trafficking and organ removal. Articles 6 and 9.5 respectively do not single out sex trafficking from the other types, and thus must also be interpreted as referring to the full range of human trafficking. To read them as requiring states to “deter demand for prostitution” is as logical as reading them to require states to “deter demand for domestic work” or “deter demand for transplantable kidneys”. Exploitation and abuse are the targets of international law, not the exchange of sex for money between two freely consenting adults.

• Proposes that the Government develops effective and appropriate responses to deal with prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Therefore we call on the Government to introduce legislation criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation.


Senators Katherine Zappone, Fiach MacConghail, Jillian van Turnhout, Martin McAleese, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Eamonn Coghlan

In case anyone is curious what bright sparks came up with this text. On your dime.

Abortion laws and maternal mortality rates – deconstructing the anti-choice spin

(This is an edited and condensed version of a piece I originally wrote for the Choice Ireland website in early 2010. I thought it was worth dusting off in view of the hysterical response by the anti-choice movement to today’s Universal Periodic Review examination, in which Ireland’s abortion policies were sharply criticised by a number of UN member states. The anti-choice criticism has been almost entirely focused on the issue of maternal mortality rates.)

Listening to the Irish anti-abortion movement, you’ll notice certain mantras that slip into every public comment. All those recent surveys indicating a shift in attitudes toward abortion? They’re meaningless, you’ll hear, because they don’t distinguish between “medical interventions” necessary to save a woman’s life and, you know, real abortions. Their own polls, of course, also ignore some important distinctions, but it is rare to hear them challenged on this – frustratingly so, since it would be so easy to do.

The latest mantra that seems to pop up whenever they speak has to do with Ireland’s maternal mortality rate (MMR). It’s the lowest in the world, apparently, and they consider this crucially significant in the abortion debate. The first few times I heard them mention it, I dismissed it as being too obviously irrelevant to merit further discussion – after all, who ever suggested that our abortion ban was killing women? Pro-choicers have always pointed to the numbers of women travelling to Britain or further afield (statistics, incidentally, which the anti-choice movement prefers to ignore) as demonstrating our hypocrisy in using another country’s laws as our safety net so that Irish women don’t die from illegal abortions. We have never claimed that they are somehow dying anyway. So what exactly is their point?

As their use of this statistic increased, two themes began to emerge. The first was the claim that our low MMR was somehow indicative of a “culture of life” or “how Ireland values life”. This is, of course, utter nonsense, as is shown by our mortality figures in other categories. For example, we have a relatively high (for Europe) perinatal mortality rate;[1] the cervical cancer death rate has steadily increased here while declining elsewhere in Europe;[2] and our youth suicide rate is fifth highest in the EU.[3]Surely the fact that we don’t even have universal primary healthcare, unlike nearly every other developed country in the world, puts the final nail in the “culture of life” coffin.

The second theme took a little longer to deconstruct but ultimately turned out to be just as flawed. In this one, the anti-choicers try to use international statistics to show a correlation between legalised abortion and high MMRs, or inversely between abortion bans and low maternal mortality. In other words, they argue that the Irish statistic isn’t a fluke but part of a pattern of greater survival rates for pregnant women in countries that outlaw abortion. A typical example is an article titled “UN Health Data Show Liberal Abortion Laws Lead to Greater Maternal Death”[4], which compares the MMR in Mauritius to those in Ethiopia and South Africa; Chile to Guyana; and Sri Lanka to Nepal; and finds that in all these cases, the World Health Organisation death rate for pregnant women in the former (abortion-restrictive) country is far lower than in the latter (more liberal) country. Is there any truth in this?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes and no. The anti-choicers aren’t making these figures up – but they aren’t giving the full story behind them, either. For one thing, they’re assuming that “legal” equates to “widely accessible”, which is something we know isn’t always true. The United States, for example, has among the most liberal abortion laws in the world and yet there is no abortion provider in 87% of its counties[5] – not an insignificant obstacle in a large, sprawling country with poor public transport infrastructure, and where workers lack statutory rights to paid medical or personal leave. It certainly does not follow that less-developed countries have only to remove legislative barriers to abortion and suddenly any woman who wants a (legal) one can get it.

But we don’t need to rest on generalisations; let’s look at some of those countries where legal abortion is assumed to be widely available. Though Nepal relaxed its laws in 2002, it was only last summer that poor Nepalese women – thanks to a lawsuit by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Forum for Women, Law and Development – obtained the right to state-funded abortions. And, in a country that ranks 144th out of 182 in the UN’s Human Development Index[6] – the fourth-lowest in all of Asia – there are a lot of really poor women. How exactly do the anti-choicers think these women were accessing legal abortions? Of course, there is also the matter of Nepal’s decade-long armed conflict, which led to the destruction of much of what that country had in the way of infrastructure – including healthcare facilities and how to get to them. The strong likelihood is that the change in abortion laws has had little impact for a large proportion of Nepalese women.

The situation is only somewhat better in South Africa. In 2004, the Durban Mercury newspaper reported[7] that healthcare workers were invoking moral grounds to refuse women abortions in spite of their legal rights – with the predictable consequence of dangerous backstreet abortions. A 2006 report[8] found that one-third of sexually active women attending public health clinics in one province did not even know that abortion was legal. A 2005 study[9]of forty-six women who had illegal abortions in another province found that 54% were unaware of their rights, while an additional 15% knew the law but didn’t know where to find a provider. Clearly, there are still a lot of backstreet abortions going on. The legal right to abortion is not yet an effective right – and thus it is simply disingenuous to claim that pregnant South African women are dying at a higher rate because abortion is legal.

Now if South Africa – one of that continent’s wealthier nations – can’t guarantee its women access to legal abortions, how could anyone imagine that a country like Ethiopia can? It is, after all, one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, a place where women and children still have to walk many miles a day just to fetch water. It almost seems pointless to go looking for references on the actual availability of abortion since the law was relaxed in 2006. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because in this case the anti-choicers’ argument falls at the first hurdle: the WHO report they cite, although published last year, cites data from 2005. I’ll graciously assume they simply didn’t notice this.

I’m less inclined to be generous about their selectivity with the WHO statistics. As eager as they are to highlight those parts of the world where the MMR seems to back up their position, they’re curiously silent about those parts of the world where it doesn’t. They don’t tell you, for example, that the lowest rate in North America is in Canada, which abolished all abortion restrictions in 1988; or that in East Asia, the safest country for pregnant women is liberal Japan. And of course, while they point out that South Africa has a higher MMR than Mauritius, they conveniently ignore that both places are left for dust by countries like Niger and DRC, where abortion is pretty much totally illegal.

The anti-choicers could have a valid argument if they were using these facts and figures to show that the link between illegal abortion and maternal mortality is more complex than it may initially seem. That would be fair enough. But this is something the pro-choice side has always recognised. Even the Guttmacher Institute[10] implicates unsafe abortion in only 13% of the world’s annual maternal deaths – which means that 87% of them are caused by something else. (In real terms, of course, 13% is still a significant number, representing approximately 70,000 women per year, and a more telling statistic would be the proportion of these particular maternal deaths that occur in countries without an effective legal right to abortion. The anti-choice movement, however, doesn’t seem very interested in that. I wonder why.)

When it suits them, of course, they’re happy to acknowledge that maternal mortality is a function of a number of elements. Take the example of Chile. Family and Life recently cited a study that, in their words,[11] shows that “maternal mortality in Chile declined over the last century whether abortion was legal or illegal” [emphasis added]. In other words, factors particular to Chile other than the legal status of abortion had the most significant impact on the MMR – which is exactly the argument the pro-choice side would make. Apparently, Family and Life didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to credit the abortion ban for the decline. Neither did the Pro-Life Campaign, judging by its 23rd April 2010 newsletter: it approvingly cites a recent Lancet article[12] which attributes the worldwide decline in maternal mortality to a number of different factors, none of them relating to either the legalisation or criminalisation of abortion. Remember that the next time you hear it claimed that Ireland’s low rate is because of our restrictive laws.

But if Chile is a country whose historical MMR shows no discernible link to the status of abortion, there are plenty of others where the opposite is true – and some of the anti-choicers’ favourite examples feature prominently on that list. In South Africa, for example, a 2005 study[13] found that the MMR declined by anywhere from 51.3 to 94.8 per cent after abortion was legalised (the large range is due to the difficulty in ascertaining the number of abortion-related deaths in the pre-legalisation era). In Nepal, which legalised abortion in 2002, by 2006 the MMR had fallen by almost 48%.[14] There’s not much information available on Guyana, but one telling record is that hospital admissions for septic and incomplete abortion fell 41 percent after legalisation.[15] These statistics are not incontrovertible proof of a link between MMR and the law (especially given the already-discussed gap between what the law says and what’s actually available), but they’re a lot more persuasive than crude cross-country comparisons – and they certainly put the lie to any suggestion that legalisation increases maternal mortality.

So to summarise, the anti-choice movement is correct to point out that countries with legal abortion don’t necessarily have lower maternal mortality than countries without it, or the other way around. But they’re absolutely wrong in suggesting the existence of a pattern in their favour. If anything, the opposite is true – a big-picture evaluation of the data reinforces the pro-choice side, in that the majority of countries with high MMRs impose strict limits on abortion while the majority of countries with low MMRs do not. In picking out the exceptions and highlighting them as if they were actually the rule, the anti-choicers are a bit like the climate change deniers (not surprising, since they tend to spring from the same gene pool) who think the miserable summers we’ve had in Ireland for the past couple years prove that there isn’t a global warming trend. And they’re equally wrong.

But there’s something really offensive at the heart of this anti-choice argument, and it doesn’t actually depend on whether or not they’re right about the link between maternal mortality and the law. Even if they were, they would still be showing up their hypocrisy in pretending that their opposition to abortion rights was somehow motivated by concern for women’s well-being. These, after all, are the same people who believe that nothing short of the woman’s death (if that) should be sufficient to entitle her to an abortion. The same people who see nothing wrong with bogus crisis pregnancy agencies inflicting huge psychological damage on women in order to prevent them making that choice. We’re seeing this kind of hypocrisy being played out in the United States at the moment, where their latest tactic is to target the black abortion rate with cries of “genocide”. It wasn’t so long ago that many of the same people (i.e., white conservatives) were accusing black women of having too many babies (for the welfare cheque, of course) – and not so long before that that they were forcibly sterilising black women. They may feign concern for the women now, but it’s nothing more than a propaganda tool.

Just to emphasise the point, I did a trawl through the Family and Life and Irish Times archives, to try to find some comment from them about those 70,000 deaths per annum. Some reference to the fact that, rates and rankings aside, women are dying as a direct result of unsafe illegal abortions (and no doubt, many others die of complications from unwanted pregnancies that they would have aborted given the option). Some explanation as to how they propose to address this particular tragic consequence of the abortion laws in those countries, the laws that they support and want to see brought in everywhere else. I found nothing – which shows pretty conclusively that the life of a pregnant women isn’t really their concern. The woman in the abortion scenario has value to them only when they think they can advance their agenda by portraying it as being in her interest. And this is something the pro-choice side needs to point out in our own public statements, because at the end of the day, whatever about opinion polls and statistics, this is what distinguishes us from them: we care about women’s lives, and they don’t.

Let that be our mantra.

1. ESRI, Perinatal Statistics Report 2007, published September 2009
2. Comber H, Gavin A , “Recent trends in Cervical Cancer Mortality in Britain and Ireland: the Case for Population-Based Cervical Cancer Screening”;. British Journal of Cancer (2004) 91 (11):1902-4
3. National Office for Suicide Prevention Annual Report 2008.
5. Henshaw SK, Finer LB. “The accessibility of abortion services in the United States, 2001”. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Jan-Feb 2003;35(1):16-24.
6. United Nations Human Development Report 2009
7. Akhona Cira and Latoya Newman, “Backstreet abortions take their toll”, 9th September 2004
8. Chelsea Morroni, Landon Myer and Kemilembe Tibazarwa, “Knowledge of the abortion legislation among South African women: a cross-sectional study”; Reproductive Health 2006, 3:7
9. Jewkes RK, Gumede T, Westaway MS, Dickson K, Brown H, Rees H: “Why are women still aborting outside designated facilities in Metropolitan South Africa?”, International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 2005, 112:1236-1242.
10. Singh S et al., Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Process, New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2009.
11. “Chilean Maternal Mortality Study Refutes Pro-Abortion Assertions”, 1st March 10
12. “Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980-2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5”, 12 April 2010
13. Jewkes R, Rees H: “Dramatic decline in abortion related mortality due to the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act”, South Africa Medical Journal 2005, 95(4):250
14. Nepal: Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Study 2008/09, Nepal Department of Health
15. Nunes F, Delph Y. “Making abortion law reform work: steps and slips in Guyana”, Reproductive Health Matters 9 (1997), pp. 66–76

Swedish police stats show more, not less, prostitution and trafficking

In the latest edition of “Reports The Swedish Government Hopes You Never See”, I’ve been looking over the wonderfully-titled Slutredovisning, prostitution och människohandel  (Final Report, Prostitution and Trafficking) published by the Swedish police in February of this year. Although Sweden issues many of its reports in English, funnily enough this isn’t one of them.

The background to the report is that in September 2008, the Swedish government asked the National Police to

att förstärka insatserna mot prostitution och människohandel för sexuella ändamål (strengthen efforts against prostitution and sex trafficking)

and a police strategy was developed toward this end. That such a request was made is noteworthy in itself, since by 2008 the Swedes and their supporters were already proselytising about the law’s supposed success. If the government was having to ask the police to step up the battle, that suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with what the law was actually achieving, despite their grandiose claims for it.

There are a few passages scattered throughout the report that I could make mischief with if I were so inclined. For example, page 20 states that police in Västra Götaland county (which includes Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city) saw, during the 2008-2010 period covered by the report,

en dramatisk ökning av rumänska kvinnor som såldes för sexuella ändamål i Sverige (a dramatic increase in Romanian women sold for sexual purposes in Sweden)

which of course also doesn’t fit entirely with how the Swedes have sold their law to the world. But what I was really interested to find was this chart on page 45,  showing the actual police statistics from the report period:

The table’s title, in English, is “number of reported cases 2008-2010 and percentage change”. The text translates as follows:

Pimping and aggravated procuring
Human trafficking for sexual purposes, total
Human trafficking for sexual purposes with person over 18 years
Human trafficking for sexual purposes with person under 18 years
Human trafficking for other purposes, total
Human trafficking for other purposes with person over 18 years
Human trafficking for other purposes with person under 18 years
Purchase of sexual services
Purchase of sexual acts by children

Now, do you notice anything interesting about those figures? That’s right – they’ve all gone up since 2008.  In some cases, they’ve gone up by an absolutely enormous amount. This is a law that deters prostitution and trafficking?

These are only reported cases, of course.  The statistics can’t prove that there has been an actual increase in the number of cases. It could be simply that they’re now detecting more of them, thanks to this new “strengthened effort”. But that doesn’t really help the Swedes’ argument, either, because what it says is that prior to that effort – while they were going around the world telling anyone who’d listen that they were winning their war with the sex industry – in fact, they were only failing to notice it. In other words, criminalisation did not make sex work go away; it just drove it underground. Which is exactly what sex workers and their advocates have always claimed – and what the law’s supporters have always strenuously denied. These statistics have to be seen as rendering that denial wholly untenable.

And since the stats only measure reported cases, it isn’t outside the realms of possibility that the number actually is decreasing even while the police are detecting more. But the Swedish haven’t been arguing that it’s possible the numbers have decreased. Their claim is an assertion of fact. It would be a difficult claim to substantiate in the best of circumstances, given the clandestine nature of the sex industry and the additional layers of secrecy that criminalisation always brings. But when the only metric available says the exact opposite of what is claimed, the claim becomes more than “unsubstantiated”. It becomes false – and probably wilfully dishonest.

Thanks to Arman Maroufkhani for assistance with translations.